According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, “Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam routine is very important.” As October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, we are discussing how to do a breast self-exam and why they are an important part of your normal routine.
The importance of breast self-exams
Regular breast self-exams allow you to notice abnormalities or changes in your breasts that you need to discuss with your gynecologist. Breast self-exams are not, however, a substitute for a breast exam by your doctor or a screening mammogram. Gaining familiarity with the normal look and feel of your breasts can supplement breast cancer screening but it can’t replace it. This will increase the odds of early detection.
How to perform a breast self-exam
While we will guide you through the techniques to use when performing a breast self-exam, you may find it helpful to ask your gynecologist for a demonstration.
Choose a time in your menstrual cycle when your breasts are less tender and swollen. Your hormone levels fluctuate throughout the month but are especially high during your menstrual cycle which causes changes in breast tissue. The best time to perform a breast self-exam is usually the week after your menstrual cycle ends and you should try to do a breast self-exam at about the same time each month.
Start your breast self-exam by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your hands on your hips. During this inspection, you should do the following:
- Facing forward, look for puckering, dimpling, or changes in size, shape, or symmetry.
- Changes in your nipples. This might include inversion or a change in position.
- Lift each breast to see if the ridges along the bottom are symmetrical.
- Raise your hands above your head and look for changes in the contour, swelling, or dimpling.
There are two common ways to perform the manual part of the breast exam:
#1: In the shower
We recommend performing the breast self-exam in the shower because the moisture on your skin will allow your fingers to glide smoothly over your breasts. Using the pads of your fingers and circular motions about the size of a quarter, move around your entire breasts from the outside to the center checking the entire breast and armpit area. During this process, you are feeling for any lumps, thickening, or hardened knots.
#2: Lying down
When you’re lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly across the chest wall, making it thinner and an ideal position to perform your breast self-exam. Choose a bed or other flat surface, lie down flat, and place a pillow under the arch of your back. Once again using the pads of your fingers, use your left hand to make small circular motions around your right breast and your right hand to do the same on your left breast, covering the entire area from top to bottom and side to side – from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen and from your armpit to your cleavage.
Alternate between applying light, medium, and firm pressure depending on the area: use light pressure for the tissue just beneath the skin, medium pressure for the tissue in the middle of your breasts, and firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back.
General tips to bear in mind:
- Use the pads, not the very tips of your middle three fingers, held flat and together to perform the breast self-exam.
- Take your time. This entire process may take several minutes but you want to perform a thorough and not rushed examination.
- Follow a pattern to ensure that you are examining the entire breast.
When should you contact your gynecologist?
You should make an appointment with your gynecologist if you notice any of the following during a breast self-exam:
- Dimpling, puckering, bulges, or ridges on the skin of your breast
- A change in your nipple such as inversion or a change in position
- Nipple discharge especially that which is yellow or blood
- Changes in the way your breasts look or feel, including thickening
- A hard lump or knot near your underarm
- Itching, scales, sores, or rashes
- Redness, warmth, swelling, or pain
While 8 out of 10 times a lump in your breast is not a sign of breast cancer, early detection significantly increases the chance of survival so if you detect any of the above changes, seek professional medical assistance.
Give us a call at Mid-Atlantic Women’s Care to schedule an appointment: 757-455-8833.